European Affairs

Despite the vaunted mobility of Americans, the U.S. has lagged badly behind Europe in passenger train services for decades. As the U.S. railway system slowly imploded, Europe was streaking forward with a new generation of trains, eventually crisscrossing the continent with 200-mile an hour, electric-powered locomotives. These high-speed trains provide faster, cleaner service than car-jammed highways and beat air travel between destinations up to 700 miles apart. And with cars that tilt in the turns, comfort is not sacrificed for speed.

As the first decade of the 21st century ends, the only high speed rail service operating in the U.S. is Amtrak’s Acela express running along the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. By the standards of European high speed rail services, Acela is a tortoise, with speeds averaging only 109 kilometers per hour (68 miles per hour) for the entire route. And there is nothing faster or more technologically advanced in the entire United States.

The lack of effective high speed rail links in the United States has every serious economic and balance of trade consequence. It makes the country far more dependent upon imported oil for cars and trucks and also upon civilian air travel, which not only requires enormous quantities of high octane fuel, but also poses much more serious security challenges in the post 9/11 age than rail travel does. Lack of high speed rail links from the center of one city to another also boosts costly congestion on freeways and at airports.

In Europe, in contrast, high-speed trains left the station decades ago. In the 30 years since France launched its first TGV – le Train Grande Vitesse –
America has seen its rail service shrivel, especially for passenger traffic.

But that picture, apparently, is about to change. The impetus behind the White House announcement is partly economic, partly environmental, but also emphatically political, given the massive jobs potential in areas such as track-laying, manufacturing, planning and engineering. “Through the Recovery Act, we are making the largest investment in infrastructure since the interstate highway system was created [under president Dwight D Eisenhower], putting Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and waterways for the future,” President Obama said.

To generate those jobs, the U.S. must import technology and even management expertise lost to the U.S. during the railways’ decline. Many prime partners in this are likely to come from Europe, whose manufacturers and rail operators are global leaders. They in turn could face stiff competition from Japan, home to the pioneering bullet-train, and from South Korea; even China is trying to offer a cheap version of this technology, which it does not even have yet. So far, however, the European model has been to the forefront in new U.S. thinking, notably French Railways, which has helped neighboring countries develop their own high-speed systems linked to the TGV. So, European companies seem poised to participate profitably in delivering momentous change for Americans. A sign of the reviving interest in general in rail transport was the decision last year by Warren Buffet, a renowned American investor, to buy a railroad, albeit one that specializes in freight, not passenger traffic.

Over recent decades, abortive efforts to introduce new and better rail links in the U.S. have come and gone, thanks in part to the powerful lobby-groups representing highways, trucks and gasoline. While heavily-subsidized, national, state-run rail services such as France’s SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn have long been a highly efficient and popular means of transport in Europe, the U.S. is left with no single nationwide railroad. This has been a major drawback for rail companies attempting to compete with other forms of mass transport.

The story of this change has two threads. One – how and why it has taken so long for the U.S. to embrace the concept – offers a striking contrast to the speed and scale of the European development. The contrast is not merely academic. America took so long to make its move that the European scene was transformed in the interim. In the process, rivals have emerged in neighboring countries for France, long the unchallenged leader in the field. Perhaps the most surprising of these rivals – to outsiders at least – is Spain, a nation that only recently began to surge ahead in high-tech industries such as solar power and also, it turns out, high-speed rail.

Measuring the scale of Europe’s transformation is a simple matter. In 10 years, neighboring countries linking up with France’s TGV have connected over 100 destinations across Europe and high speed trains have effectively supplemented the once-bustling air shuttles between many EU capitals: Trains linking Paris, London, The Hague and Brussels cover the distances in an hour or two, faster than any airliner. The international media focus on the recent three-day breakdown of the Eurostar service between London and the continent reflects the growing importance of this rail link.

In his new book Europe’s Promise, Steven Hill writes that comparing Europe’s rail system with that of the U.S. is like “comparing a professional major league team with one in the minors.” But Barack Obama’s election has finally offered hope. The prospect of investment in high speed rail technology will have a role in economic expansion certainly. But high-speed rail also has green credentials, reducing national levels of greenhouse-gas emissions from carbon-based fuels.

In the U.S., the new emphasis on high speed rail plays well to concerns about creating jobs, reviving industrial investment and creating clean alternative technology transportation infrastructure across the United States. The New York Times reported May 29 an assessment by the International Union of Railways that high speed rail services can transport eight times the number of people over any given distance for the same amount of energy used while emitting only 25 percent as much carbon dioxide per passenger carried.

But the program also presents major problems for U.S. policymakers that make it a heaven-sent opportunity to boost transatlantic trade and ties with major Western European nations.

Of course, the ambitious plan presents U.S. policy-makers with a major challenge. In post-war Europe, there was a huge pan-European emphasis on the rebuilding of railways. In the U.S., although transportation development was long regarded as a sector enjoying bipartisan support, the national interstate highway system got priority. Built by the Eisenhower administration for national security reasons during the cold war, the system has enjoyed continued political support due to pressure from that erstwhile flagship of American industry, the car-building plants in Detroit. And oil interests have lobbied against a revival of rail services, and successive Republican administrations and Republican-controlled Congresses from 1994 to 2006 resisted investing in the technology.

But now there is evidence of renewed interest railways that could some day rival Europe’s fastest. And European companies are lining up for some potentially lucrative contracts. The frontrunner in this race was long assumed to be France, for its speed and safety records. But Spain is moving up fast in the competition, insiders say. Like the U.S, it was behind the curve, but now its fast-expanding rail network could hold lessons for the U.S. Since 1992, when it opened its first AVE – Alta Velocidad Española – high-speed train route between Madrid and Seville, the network has grown to nearly 2,000 kilometers, stretching from Malaga on the south coast to Barcelona in the east. Spain’s train, the Valero, is regarded as a far less cumbersome and more up to date high speed train than the main French TGV model built by Alstom, and Spain has been working hard to get the contract for the route in California, which has a terrain similar to Spain’s and also is home to a major Hispanic minority.

All these ultra-modern train services come, inevitably, with a massive price tag, usually subsidized by governments as a public good. For example, Spain plans to spend nearly 100 billion euros in the next 10 years on the new rail infrastructure required for high-speed trains and billions more on the trains themselves. Such ambitions may have to be scaled back because of Spain’s current budget deficits. Other European state-run rail companies are struggling with debt and loss-making routes. SNCF, the French rail monopoly, is faced with collapsing profit margins, down by half from 20 percent in two years. It proposes to axe 1400 jobs this year and to cut services on unprofitable routes such as Paris-Arras and Lille-Strasbourg.

All of which will undoubtedly give pause to U.S. planners – and indeed taxpayers – who have been envying the European model. As with all bold new departures, there are bound to be many starts and stops, especially because the actual expenditure of federal funds will require choices and decisions by individual States and, in some cases, public-private partnerships.

But American rail enthusiasts now have reason for optimism, in no small part due to European companies and European technology.

Martin Sieff is Chief Global Analyst for The Globalist. He was formerly Defense Industry Editor for United Press International.